Celeste Ng, like most of us, finds her high school yearbook pictures embarrassing. (“I’m gonna call a veto on that,” she said to correspondent Martha Teichner as they pored over photos. “We’re not gonna show that!” she said of another.)
Ng recalled, “In health class we had to write a letter to ourselves ten years in the future. We were 16, and so you wrote a letter to yourself at age 26. And I had asked myself, like, ‘So, are you a published author yet?'”
At 26, her answer was no. But here she is at 39, back at Shaker Heights High School in February, signing the library copy of her second mega-bestseller, “Little Fires Everywhere.”
It takes place in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb where she lived before going off to Harvard. Hulu has turned the novel into an eight-part mini-series. It begins, as the book does, with an actual fire. The plot involves who set it, but more importantly why.
Reese Witherspoon plays the wealthy, entitled Elena Richardson; Kerry Washington is artist Mia Warren, who rents an apartment from Richardson.
Shaker Heights, by its very nature, is a character in the story, too. Walking past the neighborhood’s grand houses, Ng told Teichner, “Every one, as I understand it, was different. It had to be designed specifically for that spot.”
Incorporated in 1912, Shaker Heights was built on the site of an actual Shaker village. It took to heart some of the Shakers’ strictly-enforced values. Every street was designed so schoolchildren never had to cross a major thoroughfare. The grass could be no more than six inches high, or a homeowner was fined.
“They planned it from the very beginning, sort of to be a utopia,” said Ng. “I mean, their goal was perfection.”
By 1960, it was the wealthiest community in America, where the Good Life included doing good. “It was known for being a place where diversity was sort of a priority,” Ng said, “and that they were working hard to be racially diverse, at least in terms of black and white, and racially aware.”
Which is one reason Ng’s scientist parents, both immigrants from Hong Kong, chose to live there, and to send her to Shaker Heights’ public schools, among the best in the nation, even though there were few Asian students.
Ng said, “A lot of times, Asian Americans, much like the Latinx population, are sort of this outside party between sort of the bigger questions about black and white race relations.”
It was probably inevitable Celeste Ng would be a writer. Growing up, she made miniature objects for the imaginary occupants of miniature rooms.
“There’s a sense that you see the room and you start to make up a story,” she said, “and that might have been part of the attraction for me when I was a kid. I was always making up stories about the dolls that lived in the house.”
“Everything I Never Told You,” published in 2014, sold a million copies and was chosen Amazon’s Best Book of the Year.
Teichner said, “That book is very much an exploration of the secrets, everything associated with a mixed marriage between a Chinese man and an American white woman.”
“Well, I started thinking about the family, and they ended up becoming a mixed race family because I’m in a mixed-race marriage myself,” said Ng.
You won’t see pictures of Ng with her family, because she’s been trolled online. “I’ve had people send me nasty messages, nasty emails out of the blue, strangers,” Ng said.
“Because you are in a mixed marriage?” asked Teichner.
“That’s why they say they’re angry anywhere. I think it really goes much deeper. It really goes down to misogyny and to their questions about what they think women should be allowed to do.
“And I posted this message on Twitter so that people could see what happened.” [Her response to the insulting troll? “Sorry I didn’t reply, I’m on vacation and also you are f*****g idiot.”]
“And the good thing that came out of that was that a lot of women, particularly Asian women, wrote to me and they said, ‘I’ve been harassed like that, too.'”
She’s horrified by attacks on Asian Americans prompted by coronavirus. “It makes me sad for fellow Asian Americans that we will always be seen as other, and as foreign, no matter how long we’ve been here, no matter what we might be doing to fight this epidemic, just like everyone else is,” Ng said.
In the Hulu adaptation of “Little Fires Everywhere,” one of the plotlines involves a dilemma. Who deserves to raise a baby girl: her poor, Chinese mother, or the childless, wealthy white couple desperate to adopt her? “I think my job as a fiction writer is to present questions to the reader, more so than to present answers,” Ng said.
Between hardcover and paperback editions, “Little Fires Everywhere” has spent nearly two years on The New York Times bestsellers list. Ng’s success, she hopes, will give her the power to open doors for other Asian American writers.
She said, “No one story is gonna tell the whole Asian American experience. If I’m offered a seat at the table, I want to make other seats at the table. I guess I want to make more chairs for other people.”
To watch a trailer for “Little Fires Everywhere” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: George Pozderec.